Backpacking the Balkans

A few of weeks ago my study partner Vilde and I realized that we had some extra time before we had to hand in our Master’s Thesis. We therefore decided to book a spontaneous trip to somewhere in Europe. We started looking for relaxing beach holidays, but suddenly we were planning an adventurous backpacking trip in The Balkans! Whenever I go backpacking I always make sure I have a read through beforehand to ensure that I haven’t forgotten any of their important tips, which are pretty much a bible for backpackers. Backpacking is my favourite as it allows me to see so many different places in the most affordable way possible.
As usual, I like to travel around and not spend a lot of time each place – so this time I managed to visit Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo.

The itinerary
? We flew in to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was a city full of surprises. I am already planning going back to Skopje next year; I will tell you why I liked the city so much later.

? From Skopje, we travelled by bus to Sofia in Bulgaria. We were told that Sofia was not worth a visit (compared to many other places in Bulgaria), but I enjoyed the city, even though a day was enough to see most of it.

? After exploring Sofia, we were heading against Kosovo and stopped by Nis in Serbia. We only spent a day here as it is not the most exciting city in the Balkans, but we met a lot of nice people here, ate way too much food and had a good time.

? The next day, we went to Kosovo’s capital Pristina in the morning. In Pristina, we spent a few hours before we took another bus to a smaller city, Prizren. Despite the size, we felt that two days in Prizren was too little, as the city and the nature surrounding it are very beautiful.

Planning the trip
? You can fly into most cities in the Balkans from the biggest airports in Europe. We booked a return ticket from Trondheim to Skopje, but could easily have started in another city.

? We did not manage to book the bus tickets online. Actually, the platforms informing about the buses and schedules in the region were completely wrong. I thus recommend visiting the bus station the day before taking the bus to plan the trip. The tickets cost from 5 to 20 euros.

? Hotels are very cheap in the region. Through momondo we found decent hotels for less than 40 euros a night.

The borders
The situation between the Balkan countries is somewhat conflicted, so it might be a hassle to cross the borders. In my experience, it varies a lot depending on which border you are on and at what time you are there.

? From Macedonia to Bulgaria: We ended up with a night bus from Skopje to Sofia (because we trusted the online bus schedule, which we should not have done). The drive from Skopje to Sofia is three hours, but even though we were the only ones at the border, it took about one hour to cross it. They even went through our luggage! So, even though we were not happy about travelling during the night, I guess we were lucky, because if it had been more traffic along the border it would have taken hours.

? From Bulgaria to Serbia: This was the worst border to cross. We went early in the morning, but because it was during the weekend, the traffic was terrible. We ended up spending almost four hours at the border! The control itself was pretty fast, but the long lines seemed to be never-ending.

? From Serbia to Kosovo: We expected this to be the worst border, but it was not problematic at all and took about one hour, despite some traffic. We were recommended to go from Serbia to Kosovo rather than going from Kosovo to Serbia, so it might take more time the other way.

? From Kosovo to Macedonia: This border crossing went very smooth and took less than one hour.

The conflict in the region
I was very curious on the situation between the ethnic groups in the region, as it has been quite conflicted for decades. I was especially interested in talking to people of our generation about the conflict, as I had read that the “hate” between the groups had been transferred from older generations to the young ones. Do not get me wrong – the Balkan people are the most welcoming people I have ever met; they were extremely friendly and helpful. Still, it seemed like many people in the region have a lot of hate towards each other.

Surprisingly, the “angriest” people we met were the Albanian ethnicity in Macedonia. We got to know a few Albanians in Skopje who first told us that they did not care about politics. Seconds later, they started criticizing Serbia when we told them we were visiting the country. “I am just visiting Skopje, where I grew up – I have moved to a smaller city in Macedonia, as most students in Skopje are not Albanian”, one of them told us. They also saw Sofia as a “bad, bad city” (without telling us why). The only countries worth visiting in the Balkans, according to them, were Albania and Kosovo. I was a bit confused – how can they live so close to each other, but still hate the others so much? I also mentioned that I found Skopje to be very diverse – the two sides of the river are very different (more about that later). The reason was clear; one side is Albanian, and one side is “for the others”. Wait, what? Are not they all Macedonians, as these people are born here? It is all very difficult to understand.

The Bulgarians seemed to be more chill about the situation than the Macedonians – but they also said that “Macedonians in reality are Bulgarians”, and that most of the neighbor countries hate Bulgarians. When telling them that we were heading to Serbia, they warned us about mentioning Kosovo to Serbians. Despite this warning, we were open about our travel plans to Kosovo when talking to Serbians. Their answer was often something like “yes that is the most beautiful part of Serbia” – they really did not recognize that Kosovo’s independency. At the same time, Serbians seemed a bit more reluctant to talk about the conflict than other people we met along the way. In Kosovo, on the other hand, everyone seemed to be very happy; no hate was shown at all. This surprised me a bit, as I might have expected the people here to show more anger, as Kosovo have experienced the hard conflict quite recently.

Despite all this hate and anger, I have to mention again that I have never felt more welcome I did in the Balkans. Note that these observations are made from the people I met and talked to and do not represent the whole population’s opinion. Despite the conflict I also felt 100% safe all the time. While we were in Skopje, there was a big demonstration including some journalists and politicians getting hurt. Despite this, we felt safe all the time and I warmly recommend everyone to visit the Balkans! Follow my blog for more updates about the cities we visited.

In cooperation with momondo

Remember to follow me on Instagram @mariameland!

Related Posts

3 thoughts on “Backpacking the Balkans

  1. Dette hørtes ut som en fin reise i en spennende del av Europa! Jeg likte meg veldig godt i disse landene selv. Jeg merker dog ikke så mye til uenighetene selv, annet enn at serberne var irriterte på myndighetene deres, og mange av de mente at Kosovo fortsatt var en selvsagt del av landet. Det var sært å ta bussen fra Serbia inn i Kovoso, og se serbiske flagg på alle åsene ved veien, samt store propagandabillboards der det stod at “landet er vårt, hilsen Serbia” osv. Kosovo synes jeg var, som du også nevner, en fredelig sone til tross for dens turbulente (nylige) fortid.

    Kjenner jeg har veldig lyst til å reise tilbake til både Kosovo og Albania. Trenger å oppleve mer av naturen, så jeg håper på et gjensyn snart. 🙂

    • Åh, jeg la ikke merke til propagandabildene (kanskje fordi jeg sov mesteparten av bussturen, haha)… Men det merkes absolutt at noe skurrer litt der nede! Kosovo kommer jeg nok til å dra tilbake til. Og også Albania, da jeg kun har fått sett strandbiten av landet 🙂

  2. Pingback: Kosovo – your next destination? | Maria's Adventure

Comments are closed.